By Jamie Dettmer
Older Russians blame NATO for rising tensions between the Kremlin and Western powers over Ukraine, according to a public survey conducted this week by an independent Moscow-based pollster.
Across all age groups, half of those polled by the Levada Center believe the United States and other NATO nations are “the initiators of the exacerbation of the situation in eastern Ukraine,” while only 4% blamed Russia. Sixteen percent saw Kyiv as being responsible for worsening relations.
But the survey released midweek showed a clear age divide, with 61% of respondents 55 years and older seeing the West as the transgressor, and only 24% of respondents ages 18 to 24 agreeing with them.
Older Russians tend to receive most of their news from Kremlin-controlled television, while the younger ones tend to eschew state-run outlets and get their news from more independent sources online and from social media.
Western diplomats say the polling data shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the Kremlin has been telling Russians since 2014 that Ukraine — painted as the true aggressor — is not really an independent state and is an inalienable part of Russia. Nonetheless, diplomats fear the survey might embolden President Vladimir Putin, as tensions flare along Russia’s border with Ukraine, where U.S. and Ukrainian officials say the Kremlin has been amassing troops.
U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence officials said earlier this month that Russia could launch a military incursion into Ukraine in early 2022 with about 175,000 troops.
Washington has warned European allies that the Kremlin may be “attempting to rehash” 2014 when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Russia-backed separatists seized a large part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia. Kremlin officials maintain that Russia is not preparing to invade Ukraine and accuses Kyiv of mobilizing its military units along their shared border.
The burgeoning confrontation between Russia and Western powers is set to dominate talks in Brussels later Thursday during a scheduled meeting of the European Union’s 27 national leaders. On the eve of the meeting, Germany expelled two Russian diplomats after a Berlin court jailed a Russian hitman for life for the 2019 assassination of 40-year-old former Chechen rebel commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in a Berlin park.
Vadim Krasikov was found guilty of shooting Khangoshvili, who was a rebel commander between 2000 and 2004 when Chechnya was waging a war of independence against Russia.
Germany’s newly-installed Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the court found that the murder was carried out “on the order of state agencies of the Russian Federation,” and it was a serious violation of German law and sovereignty.
Sergei Nechayev, Russia’s ambassador to Germany, dismissed the verdict as a “politically motivated decision” after he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and was told that two members of his staff were being expelled.
‘Massive costs for Russia’
Ahead of the EU summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “At this point in time, Russia is choosing an aggressive posture vis-à-vis its neighbors. And as the European Union and its G-7 partners have made very clear, further aggressive acts against Ukraine will have massive costs for Russia.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz echoed the message, telling Germany’s parliament Wednesday that Russia would pay a “high price” if it chooses to invade Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged EU leaders to impose preemptive sanctions on Russia to deter any potential military attack. Zelenskiy made his appeal while visiting Brussels. “Our State is interested in a strong sanctions policy toward a probable escalation,” Zelenskiy said at a news conference. “And then I think there may or may not be a probable escalation.”
But Charles Michel, president of the European Council, Thursday ruled out “preventative” sanctions. A draft EU summit text warns Russia: “Any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response,” but it does not outline what measures would be taken against Moscow.
Meanwhile, Germany’s new chancellor was coming under increasing pressure in Brussels ahead of the summit from Central European member states to commit publicly to blocking the just-completed Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, linking Russia and Germany, in the event of a Russian incursion.
“We have enough tools to stop Russia from its aggressive behavior. We have to talk about sectorial and also economic sanctions. We are probably facing the most dangerous situation in the last 30 years — I am talking about not only Ukraine, but the eastern flank of NATO,” Krisjanis Karins, Latvia’s prime minister, said in Brussels.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin appeared to make little headway in a high-stakes two-hour videoconference, during which they traded accusations over a Russian military buildup near Ukraine that U.S. and Ukrainian officials fear is a prelude to an invasion.
During the talks, Biden outlined to his Russian counterpart the punitive steps the U.S. and its NATO allies will take should Moscow decide to invade Ukraine. Western officials hope the threat of sanctions, which will target Russian banks, among other institutions, will be enough to dissuade Putin from ordering any large-scale incursion into Ukraine.
According to U.S. and Russian officials, Putin demanded legal guarantees that NATO would not expand further east and allow Ukraine to join. Putin has accused NATO publicly of being “openly confrontational against Russia” and “quite hostile to us,” but says Russia doesn’t “want confrontation with anyone.”
Midweek, Putin held a virtual conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in their 37th meeting over the past eight years. Both pledged to further boost their strategic partnership amid the heightening tensions with Washington. After the videoconference, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said the leaders agreed to explore ways to insulate their countries from Western economic pressure.
He said particular attention was paid during the hour-and-a-half talks “to intensify efforts to form an independent financial infrastructure to service trade operations between Russia and China.” He told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency the goal is “to create such a structure that could not be influenced by third countries.”
Some Western diplomats say fresh economic sanctions on Russia, if it chooses to launch a further incursion into Ukraine, could go as far as cutting Russia off from the international SWIFT banking system, a wire-transfer platform used by banks and other financial institutions across the world to make and receive payments.
Russian officials handed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried, who is currently in Moscow, proposals on mutual European security guarantees, the Interfax news agency reported Wednesday.
“The president expressed hope that the Americans and NATO members will respond positively to this,” Ushakov was quoted as saying.
Russia has repeatedly demanded that NATO halt eastward expansion and close the door on Ukraine’s bid to join the Western alliance. It also wants NATO to stop supplying arms to neighboring states that were once part of the Soviet empire.
The leaders of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova issued a joint statement Wednesday calling on the EU to officially recognize and acknowledge the “sovereign choice” of the three nations to become members of the bloc.